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Polish envoy comes to terms with 3/11 via noh

Ambassador finds solace in classical Japanese form of drama by writing play that ties her background to experience of disasters

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Jadwiga Rodowicz-Czechowska, Poland’s ambassador to Japan, says she was utterly heartbroken when she witnessed the catastrophe caused by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Tohoku last March.

“I couldn’t stand being witness to this tragedy. I felt at the time (I was) not only a Polish citizen and ambassador, but kind of being a part of (the) Japanese nation,” said the ambassador and scholar, who has been a diplomat in Japan for a total of 12 years.

Rodowicz-Czechowska — who has spent more than three decades studying Japanese culture — holds a doctorate in the classical noh form of Japanese drama. Her studies specialized in noh actors’ training and Zeami Motokiyo — the noh playwright and actor who cofounded the art as it is known today with his father, Kannami Kiyotsugu, in the 14th century. Rodowicz-Czechowska read Zeami’s work in an English translation, and said she was amazed “by the beauty and the depth, and the philosophy of acting — by the very high moral and aesthetical standards of the actors.”

She also recalled how she felt in the aftermath of the disasters.

“It was these growing numbers. Dead and missing, dead and missing, and these numbers growing and growing, and of course, the Fukushima crisis looming also over Tokyo,” she said. “We weren’t sure if we were safe in Tokyo — (it) felt a bit like during war. One could really feel the cold breath of death, so to say.”

In addition to supporting the initiatives taken by the Polish government to help Japan, including collecting donations and partially rebuilding a destroyed kindergarten in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, Rodowicz-Czechowska personally wrote a new noh play in Polish — “Chinkon” — as a homage to both the victims of the March 11 disaster and those killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II. The title means “repose of souls” in Japanese.

Rodowicz-Czechowska says that there are two types of tragedies in human history — those where innocent souls are taken in war, and those where lives are suddenly lost through natural calamities.

“Those lives should never be forgotten,” she said. “We will have forever, this heritage of tragedy, of unhappiness, of shadow, and we have to come to terms with it.”

Noting that Auschwitz was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site “as an eternal memory to atrocities a human being can act out towards others,” and that Japan had Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for Rodowicz-Czechowska, those are things she learned about from going to museums.

“The earthquake and Fukushima (nuclear accident) was something I lived through,” she said.

“We should never forget (the disaster and nuclear accident), and keep them in people’s memory. By writing a play, I’m putting it in the memory of people who ever read it, or maybe want to perform it,” she said.

“The play was my own personal requiem — giving back to the Japanese all the good that I gained throughout the more than 30 years of my relationship with Japan.”

Rodowicz-Czechowska, who has also written several books on noh and Japanese cuisine, said she initially found the theme of the Holocaust “too dark” to undertake, but when the Japanese producer and actors asked her what she personally thought of Auschwitz, she gradually found herself also wanting to write this play as a personal homage to her uncle who died in the Holocaust.

“My uncle died at 19,” she said. “I remember that grandma was despairing at losing him at such a young age,” she said.

She suspects he was captured instead of his father, who was a politician being pursued by the Nazis but managed to escape the country.

“(The Nazis) simply took (my uncle), kept him for interrogation for three months, then they sent him to Auschwitz and then, he simply died of hunger,” she said.

She never knew this story in detail until she asked her mother, 85, and aunt, 87, what they remembered about their brother’s death.

In “Chinkon,” one of the shite (primary characters) is a young Polish man who died in the Holocaust in 1942 (whose model is Rodowicz-Czechowska’s uncle). A Japanese character from Fukushima Prefecture who has lost his son in the tsunami meets the spirit of this shite who never had a chance to meet his father again, and the two souls console one another.

“It’s like a meeting of two men, one old and one young — like father and son — although they belong to different nations and a different history,” the ambassador said.

In writing “Chinkon,” Rodowicz-Czechowska asked for permission from the Imperial Household Agency to embed in the play poems written by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko — which she thought would “soften the cruelty of the experience we are relating to” and which was perfectly in harmony with the tradition of noh to have quotations from famous Japanese or Chinese poems.

The ambassador was invited to the Utakai Hajime, the annual New Year’s poetry reading held at the Imperial Palace in January, and was touched by the poems read by the imperial couple to encourage those who had lost loved ones in the disasters.

“It moves me very much that this loving and peaceful being is always bringing in such important feelings of care for the nation,” she said of the Emperor.

Rodowicz-Czechowska had a reading of the play — originally written in Polish and translated into Japanese and English —at Tokyo’s Theater X with several others on March 5.

It was the second noh text written by Rodowicz-Czechowska. Her first work, “The Piano Tuner,” was performed in both Japan and Poland in 2011. The play was about the Polish composer Frederic Chopin and French painter Ferdinand Delacroix.

One of the performances was done at Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church, where Chopin’s heart is entombed in a pillar, in front of an audience who had never seen a noh performance before.

Rodowicz-Czechowska, born and raised in the industrial town of Zabrze in southern Poland, first took an interest in Japan through Polish translations of novels by Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki. She then went on to study Japanese culture at Warsaw University, and took up noh as the thesis for her master’s and doctorate degrees.

Her first encounter with noh was in 1976 as a university student, when she saw in France a performance of “Kinuta” — a famous noh play from the Muromachi Period that portrays the grievances of a wife taking care of the household while her husband is away.

She said she was moved to tears by the “purity and the special kind of concentration of actors” in the performance.

It was during this time in France, where Rodowicz-Czechowska had gone for a short time to earn money between her studies, that she happened to find out from a friend that a Japanese noh company had a performance scheduled.

“Of course I didn’t have the ticket, so I went an hour before,” she said. “I waited for the Japanese actors to come out, and approached one of them in my not-so-good Japanese: ‘I’m a student from Poland. I’m studying noh, but I’ve never seen it. Is there any way I can possibly see this?’ “

The man, she later found out, was the late Kanze Hideo — one of Japan’s leading shite actors — who told her to come along and gave her a prime seat for the show.

The next year Rodowicz-Czechowska found herself in Japan for the first time, with a scholarship to do postgraduate studies at the University of Tokyo.

After returning to Poland and teaching Japanese culture for nearly a decade at Warsaw University, and engaging in research as a leading member at the Polish theater center Gardzienice, she joined the Polish Foreign Ministry in 1993.

All of her diplomatic experience outside Poland has been in Japan, but Rodowicz-Czechowska, who is here in Tokyo with her husband — a documentary filmmaker — is scheduled to end her time at the mission in Tokyo later this year. After returning to Poland, she plans to do work in the field of public diplomacy, and would also like to see “Chinkon” performed in Tokyo and in Auschwitz, and in Poland’s second-largest city of Krakow.